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Drama Club: Tuesdays with Chekhov + 'The Cherry Orchard'

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Play: The Cherry Orchard
Year Published: 1903
Point in Chekhov’s Career: Last of his four major plays

Synopsis:
After years abroad, Liubov Ranyevskaya is finally returning to her family’s old estate.  She is accompanied by her daughter Anya, brother Leonid Gayev and valet Yasha.  As happy as the family is to be back – and reunited with Liubov’s adopted daughter Varya – they cannot enjoy their return.  The estate is up for auction.  While they scramble to find a solution, the family must deal with the possibility of saying goodbye to their beloved home and its renowned cherry orchard.

Historical Context:
One issue prevalent in The Cherry Orchard is the emancipation of the serfs, which occurred in 1861.  The act was seemingly a just one, but it left the serfs in arguably a worse position than before.  As Donald Rayfield explains in Understanding Chekhov, “The miseries of emancipation, which mortgaged every peasant to the government for generations, tied him more tightly by debt and collective responsibility than any serfdom did.”  Rayfield further points out that there was greater hunger and lower life expectancy among serfs in the 1890s than in the 1840s.

This topic is addressed several times by Firs, the old, senile butler in The Cherry Orchard.  Firs is constantly reminiscing about the days of pre-emancipation.  He never even left the family after 1861 because he “had all the freedom he needed.”  What’s more, the various occupants of the estate frequently tell Firs to shut up, or ridicule his poor hearing.  They even desert him at the play’s close.  The poor old man is never treated well once in the play, reflecting the harsh times former serfs faced at the turn of the century.

Chekhovian Context:
In an 1891 letter to Alexei Suvorin, Chekhov wrote, “I don’t intend to get married.  I should like to be a little bald old man sitting at a big table in a fine study.”  The writer was wary of marriage most of his life, only wedding actress Olga Knipper three years before his death in 1904.  Even then, he was reluctant.  He insisted his wife continue to live in Moscow while he resided in the country because he wanted “a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.”

This attitude matches the bitter and/or cynical portrayals of marriage – or potential marriages – in The Cherry Orchard.  Yepikhodov, a kind (and accident-prone) businessman, proposes marriage to the maid, Dunyasha, but she’s in love with Yasha, whom most regard as a cad.  Trofimov, a grad student, scoffs at the idea that he and Anya might get married, saying they’re “above love.”  Most tragically, despite constant speculation of their inevitable engagement, businessman Lopakhin never finds the nerve to propose to lovesick Varya.  Not a single happy marriage or engagement exists in The Cherry Orchard.  The characters’ relationships are instead either miserable or uncertain.

Casting Call:
It’s tempting to suggest Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep for any 40+ role.  Yet they’re a little too old for Liubov Ranyevskaya, so Juliette Binoche seems like a safer bet.  Want to watch her channel Liubov’s rocky marriage?  See Cache.  Liubov’s grief over her dead son?  See Paris, je t’aime.  Binoche’s general talent as an actress?  See any one of her movies.

Kristin Hunt is an undergraduate journalism major at Syracuse University. She dreams of the day she owns a personal library the size of Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast. Her column, “Drama Club,” appears every Tuesday.

Photo of Binoche: The Guardian

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Written by whitney teal

March 30, 2010 at 9:41 am

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